Double Standards – An On-going Discussion
I had been thinking about double standards in connection with Gary Sheffield’s recent controversial comments before I saw Sunday morning’s Outside the Lines. Alot has been written about Gary Sheffield’s recent comments about the declining number of African Americans in Major League baseball and the concomitant rise in the number of baseball players from Latin America. There has been a good deal of harsh reaction to Sheffield’s comments – Jeff Pearlman, for example, called him a “dangerous moron.” But many commentators – Dwil having been among the first – have focused on the economic realities driving baseball’s demographic transformation, including Dave Zirin, King Kaufman and William Rhoden (Times Select).
But, as is almost always the case when a public figure makes controversial comments, the question of double standards, has come up. And, in sports discourse, it frequently takes the form of: “if a white guy said what he said…”
On Sunday morning’s Outside the Lines, host Bob Ley discussed Sheffield’s comments with Howard Bryant of the Washington Post and Jose De Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle. Bryant gave much credence to Sheffield’s remarks, noting that: “if you focus on race, it becomes a controversy, if you focus on the economics of this, it becomes a necessary dialogue that this sport needs to have…” And, Bryant specifically rejected a comparison that Ley repeated, that Sheffield’s comments about easy-to-control Latinos was akin to Al Campanis’ comments on Nightline twenty years ago, when Campanis suggested that one reason there might be relatively few Blacks in front office and managerial positions in baseball is that “they lack the necessities…” (Ley wasn’t saying he himself accepted this comparison).
Ortiz had a different view. He quoted Brad Ausmus as saying that Sheffield’s comments were “asinine” and Ortiz said that he couldn’t have said it better himself. After Bryant raised the economic issues, Ortiz agreed, but asserted that: “I do agree that these comments, if a white person had made them, there’d be a big controversy.” And, Ortiz characterized Sheffield’s remarks as “utterly racist” and complained that “just because a Black person” said them,”we have to talk about it.”
We’ve been down this road before. Last Fall, Michael Irvin made some impertinent (and joking) suggestions about Tony Romo’s pedigree (that his athleticism was due to having possessed Black ancestry) and many complained that he ought to be fired and that, in fact, he would have been had he been white, like Jimmy the Greek, who was fired in 1988 for theorizing out loud about how Black athletes’ success derived from the way that slave women were bred. Back in 2003, Dusty Baker speculated out loud about the ability of African American athletes to withstand heat. These comments sent sports talk radio and other outlets into a tizzy for weeks about the double standard that allowed a Black manager to get away with something for which a White manager would likely be fired.
And, of course, it was just two months ago that we lived through a media frenzy over Don Imus’ comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team which resulted, of course, in Imus being fired amid bitter complaints about rap music, the unfair treatment of the three accused-then-exonerated Duke Lacrosse players and such.
Before we get to the more serious issues, let’s quickly dispense with the idea that Blacks who say bigoted things in public don’t face condemnation. In February, Tim Hardaway famously said “I hate gay people.” Though those comments themselves sparked a wide-ranging discussion in sports media about homophobia in sports and in society at large, Hardaway was vilified. Hardaway also lost employment with the NBA as a consequence of those remarks. In 1999, when Reggie White uttered a series of bigoted remarks and stereotypical statements to the Wisconsin state legislature, he was also widely condemned.
In the aftermath of the Irvin comments last Fall, Dan Le Batard (himself of Cuban descent), gave an interview to The Big Lead in which he addressed the double standards question:
“I’ve heard a lot of white people say what you have said Reilly wrote (Reilly complained that a White sportscaster would have been fired for having said what Irvin said). Don’t agree with him. God, we’re so sensitive. Too sensitive. We’re so willing to end a broadcaster or executive’s entire career over a few words. We love firing people. I wonder how Rick would feel if he wrote one dumb sentence and got fired over it. We’re too willing to erase too much good work over a mistake. And I’m just as tired of hearing white people bitch about the double standard here as white people are of hearing cries of racism. Yes, black people can say things white people can’t. But Jimmy The Greek and Al Campanis don’t make up for slavery, OK? They don’t make up for the fact that just about every person in a position of power in sports is white and hiring other white people. They don’t make up for the fact that 6 of 1 million college-football coaches are black because all the people in power and making the decisions are white and they tend to hire other white people because if you looked around the room at their parties and galas and weddings, all you would see is white people. This isn’t racism. Its human nature. We gravitate toward those with similar interests, experiences, etc. But black people are in an unequal position because of it. So, yes, there’s a double standard. Black people can say things that white people can’t. But I’m OK with that double standard given what has to be endured to arrive at it. Life ain’t fair sometimes. If life were fair, Dane Cook wouldn’t be getting more play than Frank Caliendo and Dave Chapelle.” (my bold).
As I wrote last December, I think Le Batard has the proportions right here: the widely echoed belief that White males are treated unfairly in America is based on a staggeringly narrow and selective perception of reality. Yes, it might be true that, in some cases, African Americans have been given more latitude in public comments than Whites might be. But, I’d even qualify that statement. As King Kaufman noted back in 2003, one reason why Dusty Baker may have gotten a pass on his comments was that we generally give more latitude to folks speaking about “their own kind.” Jews can make jokes about Jews, Blacks can use the N-word, Latinos can make jokes about Latinos and so forth. Furthermore, the Sheffield/Campanis comparison is an inapt one. Sheffield was not, it seems clear, describing Latinos as, in effect, inferior. He was arguing that, because of their circumstances, they’re afraid to speak up and, thus, easier to control. Did he make a crude generalization? Absolutely. Is that the same as saying that Blacks can’t get jobs because they are inferior, as Campanis seemed to be saying? I don’t think so. And, though many tried to interpret Dom Imus’ “Nappy-headed ho’s” comment in a benign light, there’s nothing redeeming that can be said about those comments (whether he should have been fired for making them is a separate question).
But, what’s really had me thinking about double standards recently is a story I read not too long ago in the Independent, a Durham-based weekly publication, about Erick Daniels. In December 2001, then fifteen year old Erick Daniels was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to 10-14 years in prison. There was never any physical evidence linking Daniels to the crime. The only evidence that the prosecution used to convict Daniels was the identification of the victim. She picked Daniels out of a seventh grade year book. The two men who robbed the victim, Ruth Brown, at gun point were wearing masks. So, she never actually saw their faces. She identified Daniels by the shape of his eyebrows. Brown also told investigators that the perpetrator she later insisted was Daniels was light-skinned and wore cornrows. Daniels is dark-skinned and has never had hair long enough to have cornrows. There are also disturbing discrepancies between two separate reports written by the lead investigator on the case, discrepancies that appear to undermine the credibility of the identification.Though inadmissible in court, Daniels has passed all polygraph tests. Finally, the prosecutor in the case, Freda Black, convinced a judge to have Daniels tried as an adult in Superior court (he was fourteen at the time the case was assigned). This is not, of course, an isolated case. Studies have repeatedly shown that Blacks (and Hispanics) are treated more harshly at every phase of the criminal justice system than are Whites for comparable offenses.
I raise this here because there was so much discussion during the Imus episode about what appeared to be a double standard in the way Imus was treated compared to the offensive lyrics emanating from rap music. Intimately bound up in that comparison were complaints about the double standard attending use of offensive language by Whites and Blacks. And, in the midst of that episode, North Carolina’s Attorey General, Roy Cooper, declared the three Duke Lacrosse players innocent of all charges, prompting calls from across sports media that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton should apologize for having helped lead the witch hunt against the three players (it turns out that they never actually engaged in such rabble rousing, though Jemele Hill repeated that canard about Jackson just yesterday). But, as Reade Seligmann understood, in the aftermath of the trial, he and his two co-defendants had advantages throughout their ordeal that many people don’t have:
“This entire experience has opened my eyes up to a tragic world of injustice I never knew existed. If police officers and a district attorney can systematically railroad us with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, I can’t imagine what they’d do to people who do not have the resources to defend themselves.”
And, it’s worth recalling that African Americans are disproportionately likely to be among those people who don’t have the resources to defend themselves. So, while Durham justice will long be associated with the disgraced Mike Nifong and Duke Lacrosse, the bigger picture remains as it ever was: injustice claims its share of White victims in America, but there’s only one way to understand the double-standard in American criminal justice. So, when De Jesus Ortiz laments what would’ve happened if a White person had said what Sheffield said (even assuming you think he’s nothing more than a “dangerous moron”), forgive me for being unmoved. Look, I don’t expect every conversation in sports to be suffused with deep racial consciousness, historical awareness and gender and class sensitivity. But, a little perspective on double standards would be nice.